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Taryn Davis


Burn Your Ships!

Generating momentum for sustained change

Published: Wednesday, September 11, 2019 - 12:03

You may have a distant memory of Hernán Cortés, that Spanish conquistador, from your eighth-grade world history class. If you don’t, he was known for conquering the Aztec tribes that controlled what is now Mexico. He’s also famous for a somewhat lesser-known story of rallying his men to burn their ships so that they couldn’t turn back around and leave before they had accomplished their goal.

This historical anecdote can provide needed inspiration for those in a variety of disciplines, but my favorite application is to leadership of improvement efforts.

If you are a professional working in the capacity of leading any kind of improvement effort, you know that getting buy-in from the people responsible for maintaining the improvement is at least half the battle. If you don’t get that, you may as well call the whole thing a wash. However, this requires a shift in culture so that the desire to sustain the change is built into the very framework of the business.

Most businesses don’t have the luxury of a continuous improvement mindset being built into the foundation right at the outset. And as we all know, while you may not pay attention to the foundation of your house until you notice a crack, it may be the single most important aspect of any structure.

The good news is that business culture is somewhat more fluid than architectural structure, and when you notice a lack of this kind that is affecting the culture of the organization, you can change it. Here’s how in two parts.

Part one: you

All change efforts start with you, the leader, looking at yourself first. You must consider your own fears, weaknesses, biases, and points of entitlement that might be holding back the change effort before it even begins. For those of you that disagree or may have less experience, please consider the last time you told a report to do something to a required that you yourself failed to demonstrate. Did you actually get the results you wanted?

Please take a moment to engage in a brief exercise. We’re going to consider the story about Cortés from the outset of this article. In his case, his challenge was coming to a new land and conquering it with the help of the men he’d brought with him. His ships were the things that had brought him and his crew that far but could no longer be of assistance in attaining the goal at hand.

As a personal example of applying this analogy, I had just come into a role as continuous improvement manager for a food manufacturer. I had come from a situation where I was working 70-hour weeks, and I was very excited for my predictable 9-to-5 schedule. Well, that lasted all of three weeks before it came to my attention that we needed to execute an improvement exercise on our full-room clean, which was currently taking eight hours but should have been done in four. That process occurred any time of the day or night because we were a 24/5 facility. In this case, my challenge was to lead the team to improve that process. My ship? My entitlement to a predictable 9-to-5 schedule. The outcome of burning that ship was threefold: I gained the respect and trust of the team, a greater understanding of not only that process but others that were up-and-coming opportunities, and we executed the improvement in a record time.

With that in mind, please set a timer for 90 seconds and write down the challenges you have in front of you. Once you have completed that, set the timer for another 90 seconds and write down your ships in each scenario.

With that said, we can now turn our attention to the other part of an improvement objective: everyone else.

Part two: everyone else

Inspiring people is one of the most challenging and rewarding things a leader has the opportunity to engage in. Leadership is filled with the difficulty of working with humans, but when we have the opportunity to actually achieve a desired objective, and everyone sees the fruit of their labor, we experience a reward that exceeds any kind of formal recognition. These suggestions for supporting a sustained change effort with your team should be executed in order because they build on each other.

Gain partisanship. No one can lead any kind of effort without a team. You need people to understand the vision and support it alongside you. Thus, your first step is to identify and gather around you like-minded individuals who will fight for the necessary change. An improvement effort without a team of energized participants is like the EPL (English Premier League) without supporters in the stands. Without the chanting and the cheers, would the match be worth watching? Nothing matters if no one cares about it.

Inspire management. Management on all levels needs to be inspired. If you are in management, you know that there are days you feel more overwhelmed than excited about what’s going on. Management needs to be reminded that it is working alongside colleagues toward a common goal, even when it fails to execute this itself. Your job? Encourage those who manage you in a way that acknowledges their efforts and bridges the gap.

Use data with strategic intention. Data are important. Although as humans we sometimes shirk data in favor of feelings, data allow us to make decisive decisions and take calculated risks. Pay attention to what your data are actually saying. Don’t make things up to tell a story that isn’t there. Use applicable data to inspire management and gain partisanship.

Kill ’em with kindness. Maybe we’re all familiar with this—but do we practice it? When you want to gain partisanship, you are your best billboard. Do your words match your actions? The first rule of writing is “show, don’t tell,” and it applies to leading people as well. They must see how you address situations to understand the standard you would like them to uphold, and kindness goes a long way.

Keep your eyes peeled. No two opportunities look alike. Let your data reveal the opportunities that are ripe for the picking. Then don’t be afraid to reach a little farther to get at them. We often get caught up in the fires at our feet and fail to see the details in front of us that would prevent those fires altogether. Take a deep breath and look for those things.

Leading improvement initiatives in the interest of supporting a quality organization is never an easy undertaking. But that isn’t why we do it; we do it for the challenge and because we believe that the pursuit of perfection is worthwhile, even if we know it is impossible. Keep up the good work!


About The Author

Taryn Davis’s picture

Taryn Davis

Taryn Davis has a background in Continuous Improvement and Organizational Development. She is a thought pioneer in organizational excellence and seeks to bring people into a space where work is workable for all employees, from the upper echelons of the C-Suite to the line workers on the shop floor. Her passion is engineering processes and products that serve the well-being of the people responsible for and to them. Read more about how to inspire sustained change at www.tbd-strategies.com or follow her on Twitter @tbdstrategies.